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When even NDP questions spending, pay attention

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BRANDON -- The Brandon School Division plans to increase spending this year by 10.4 per cent, much of it prematurely, according to the minister of education, no less.

After factoring in the growth in Brandon's tax base, the increased spending will result in an 8.5 per cent mill-rate increase -- or $117.25 on a $200,000 home.

If there is a bright side to the situation, it is that the tax increase could have been worse. The draft budget called for a $4.6-million increase in spending. The board has pared the increase down to $2.35 million.

"Iàbelieve it is a significant reduction," board chairman Mark Sefton told the Brandon Sun. "We believe we did the best thing we could for the students in the division."

This is the point in the discussion where blame for the tax increase is usually shifted to the provincial government for failing to provide adequate education funding. In this instance, that would be neither fair nor accurate.

A few weeks ago, however, Education Minister Nancy Allan travelled to Brandon to announce the province's funding for the BSD. She told the media that "for the second year in a row, Brandon is getting one of the largest increases in the province."

While average funding for school divisions increased by an average of 2.3 per cent, Allan announced the BSD would be receiving $3.2 million in additional funding -- an 8.4 per cent increase. With such a generous increase, how can the BSD justify such a large tax hike?

"The reality is we did the best we could to try to balance those concerns with what we see are the needs of the students," Sefton says.

Allan has another opinion, however. She points to spending decisions the BSD board made on items other divisions are not funding. At the top of that list is the BSD's implementation of the province's kindergarten to Grade 3 class-size initiative.

Though divisions will be required to reduce class sizes at those grade levels to a maximum of 20 pupils by 2017, the BSD began implementing the policy last year, when it hired nine teachers at a cost of $756,000. This year's budget funds the hiring of another three teachers at a cost of $237,900.

Allan points out no other division in the province has hired that many teachers for an initiative that is still four years away. She says "even school divisions like Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg that has just as many enrolment pressures, hired two teachers because this is a strategic initiative that we said very clearly did not have to be implemented until 2017."

Another expensive item on the BSD budget is all-day, everyday kindergarten. Despite the fact the province does not mandate it, it is being slowly implemented in Brandon's early years schools. This year's budget will add another school to the list, at an annual cost of $209,000.

Those are two examples of costly spending decisions by the board that go far beyond provincial mandates. In every instance, the spending is defended as being necessary to "meet the needs of students" -- and that's the problem.

Students will always have needs, and it is human and decent to want to address them through new initiatives. It is a mistake, however, to believe the needs of children can be solved by annually strip-mining taxpayers' wallets.

It is an even greater mistake to justify millions of dollars in annual spending on the belief the needs of Brandon's children are dramatically more serious than the needs of children elsewhere in the province, or the BSD understands children's needs far better than the provincial Department of Education.

For years, the defence that "it's for the children" has proven to be an effective shield against questions regarding the merits of spending decisions made by school boards. It has deflected scrutiny from an education system that continues to devour tax dollars at an unsustainable rate.

That has to stop. When an NDP education minister questions the wisdom of school boards' spending decisions, we should pay attention and start asking questions.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 21, 2013 A15

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